How to Write a Policy White Paper

By Enoka Bainomugisha @kingbaino


Action research involves solving a particular problem and to producing guidelines for best practice. When there are decision makers which need to be informed or swayed to solve a particular problem, White Papers are a good route research tool to use. White Papers are specific type of research papers aimed at influencing decisions. The purpose of a White Paper is to advocate that a certain position is the best way to go or that a certain solution is best for a particular problem (Sakamuro et al 2010). How you present the knowledge and research is just as important as how knowledgeable you are on the topic and what your research entails. A White Paper should be well researched and technically documented, demonstrating your understanding of the issue at hand (Knowledge Storm 2005).

While business White Papers seek to show the benefits of a product to consumers for sales purposes, non-business white papers often seek to influence policy. Policy is a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve outcomes. Policy is also a statement of intent, and is implemented as a procedure or protocol. Whether in health, law, politics, trade or any other field, research can influence policy. Individuals and organizations can increase their chances of impacting policy through well-written White Papers.



The main characteristic of a White Paper is its format. The White Paper should be presented in the following order:

  1. Executive Summary

A brief summary on what the White Paper entails and is used to help the reader to quickly understand the paper’s purpose. The executive summary should be in the same order as the main report, include material present in the main report and be concise.

  1. Background / Problem(s)

Provide readers with the general background information on the issue at hand. Help the reader make their decision based on the understanding of the research. It is important to show the reader you are an expert on the subject, while not digressing from the main issues at hand. The problem or issue at hand should be stated clearly for the reader to see.

  1. Solution / Reccomendations

After explaining the background and problems, propose your solution or recommendations. The quality and utility of your solution or recommendation should be assessed using Double-S.M.A.R.T criteria: Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Results-Oriented; and Time-Bound. Solution-suggestive; Mindful of prioritization, sequencing & risks; Argued; Root-cause responsive; and Targeted. See Association for the Prevention of Torture article for detailed explanations.

  1. Conclusion

Your conclusion should appear as a result of the logical argument and information you have presented. Effective White Paper conclusions should propel readers to action that furthers your goals or solutions. The conclusion should briefly restate the main findings, and show readers why the goals and/or solutions presented in the previous section are in their interests. What makes white paper conclusions different than other conclusion is the emphasis on what the reader can do as a next step.

  1. Appendix

Place any appendices necessary.

  1. Works Cited

Place works cited at the end of your white paper.


General Rules

Length and content of the White Paper

The length of white papers is audience dependent. Generally, white papers to businesses, NGOs, or foundations should be kept to 12 pages or less. Longer topics should be split into multiple papers. White papers to governments tend to be longer (20 to 40 pages).

Graphics are important to white papers because of their ability to display information in an easier and more visibly appealing fashion. Do not use clip art or photos as they will make your white paper look like a brochure. If possible, include informative illustrations that walk the reader through a relevant process. Research shows that “pictograms,” the combination of words and pictures in a chart or diagram, communicate much more effectively than either words or images by themselves (Knowledge Storm 2005).



Use accessible language and avoid dense language or overuse of industry or technical jargon. Technical or industry jargon can be used when you are positive your audience is intimately familiar.

Different types of readers look for different perspectives. A lawyer might be concerned with the legal aspect of your solutions while a government official might be concerned with the feasibility of your solution.


Ethical Considerations  

The same ethical principles which govern your research should govern your White Paper. If your white paper references research you conducted, your appendix should include your ethics approval


Further Reading (Examples of White Papers) 

Association for the Prevention of Torture. 2008. Making Effective Recommendation.

Physitians Foundation. 2015. “Medicare Watch List Report”.

Ponemon Institute LLC. 2014. “Global Insights on Document Security”.

Toews, Vic, and Christian Paradis. 2010. “Canada’s Cyber Security Strategy.” October 3.


Further Reading (How to Write White Papers)

Dukeshire, Steven, and Jennifer Thurlow. “Understanding the Link Between Research and Policy.” Rural Communities Imp acting Policy (RCIP), 2002.

Knowledge Storm, and Content Factor. “Eight Rules for Creating Great White Papers,” 2005.

Sakamuro, Sachiko, Karl Stolley, and Charlotte Hyde. “White Paper: Purpose and Audience.” Accessed January 18, 2016.



Style Guide for Intersectional Writing

Hanna Thomas and Anna Hirsch. (2016). A Progressive’s Style Guide. Sum of Us.

Language has politics. Writing in a style that is inclusive and ethical is a skill, and this excellent text offers guidelines and examples of language for writing for diverse, intersectional audiences. There are sections for different topics, such as age, disability, economy, health, Immigration, and Indigeneity, among many others, and each section begins with guiding principles.

IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation

International Association of Public Participation, Spectrum of Public Participation, poster.

Created by the International Association of Public Participation, this chart helps scaffold the process for increasing meaningful engagement by addressing the goals, public communication, and example participation techniques. IAP2 is an international organization for knowledge sharing and capacity building of best practices for public participation. This straightforward graphic is based off of the Arnstein’s ladder of public participation and includes the categories of: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, empower. While this graphic does not provide any practical guidelines, it presents a clear framework for thinking about the work of public participation and can be a useful reference point.

Sharing circles and Anishnaabe symbol-based reflection

Lavallée, L. F. (2009). Practical application of an Indigenous research framework and two qualitative Indigenous research methods: Sharing circles and Anishnaabe symbol-based reflection. International journal of qualitative methods, 8(1), 21-40.

Abstract: Increasingly research involving Indigenous people is being undertaken by Indigenous researchers, who bring forward worldviews that shape the approach of the research, the theoretical and conceptual frameworks, and the epistemology, methodology, and ethics. Many times such research bridges Western practices and Indigenous knowledges; however, bringing together these two worldviews can also present challenges. In this paper the author explores the challenges and lessons learned in the practical application of an Indigenous research framework and qualitative inquiry. Two qualitative Indigenous research methods, sharing circles and Anishnaabe symbol-based reflection, will be discussed.

Conversation method in Indigenous research

Kovach, M. (2010). Conversation method in Indigenous research. First Peoples Child & Family Review, 5(1), 40-48.

Abstract:  In reflecting upon two qualitative research projects incorporating an Indigenous methodology, this article focuses on the use of the conversational method as a means for gathering knowledge through story. The article first provides a theoretical discussion which illustrates that for the conversational method to be identified as an Indigenous research method it must flow from an Indigenous paradigm. The article then moves to an exploration of the conversational method in action and offers reflections on the significance of researcher-in-relation and the inter- relationship between this method, ethics and care.

Feminist Measures in Survey Research

Harnois, C. E. (2012). Feminist measures in survey research. SAGE Publications.
From the publisher: How can multiracial feminism inform social science survey research? What would it mean, in practical terms, to bring an “intersectional” approach to survey design and statistical analysis? How might such an approach change our understanding of the social world? Feminist Measures in Survey Research offers a new approach for bridging feminist theory and quantitative social science research. Catherine E. Harnois demonstrates how a multiracial feminist perspective can inform virtually every aspect of the research process, from survey design and statistical modeling to the frameworks used to interpret the results. Harnois argues for an interdisciplinary approach to social research, rooted in multiracial feminist theorizing. Such an approach, she suggests, enables a critical reexamination of the assumptions embedded in everyday research practices. It also provides a new and important framework for critiquing and producing quality survey research.

Getting your Data: Community Mapping

Research for Organizing. (2011-2016). “Getting your Data: Community Mapping.” Website.

Mapping is the visual representation of data by geography or location, the linking of information to place.  Community mapping does this in order to support social and economic change on a community level. Mapping is a powerful tool in two ways: (1) it makes patterns based on place much easier to identify and analyze and (2) it provides a visual way of communicating those patterns to a broad audience, quickly and dramatically. This website has activities, training, sample canvassing sheets, case studies, and other concrete tools to help begin community mapping.